There are many ways to read the latest war in Lebanon. It may rightly, for instance, be seen as a proxy war, a nasty skirmish at the margins of a strategically bigger struggle. Like those cold war subconflicts in Africa, Indochina, and Central America, it pits adversaries equipped, ideologically inspired, and goaded by more powerful patrons. In this case, the patrons, waiting in the wings to see how their weapons and tactics performed, and hoping to frighten their bigger foes while limiting losses to themselves, are Iran and America, each using a pampered, martially minded client to defend against perceived threats to their interests in the region.
For America’s leaders, Hezbollah represents not just the long arm of Iran’s Islamic Republic, a hostile Shia power which has, since its inception, funded, trained, and armed the Lebanese Shia group. It also represents a form of what George Bush has taken to calling Islamic fascism. In other words, making war against Hezbollah is seen as a natural adjunct to the wider war against Islamist terrorism. Defeating it can only be good for America, and good for the vaguely defined cause of holding the Middle East within the international system that American power has for so long underpinned. So it is that America lent its diplomacy not to stopping the fighting as soon as possible, but to providing an umbrella for Israel to “finish the job” of crushing Hezbollah.
To Iran’s leaders, and particularly to the current administration of religious conservatives whose main support base lies with such ideologically zealous institutions as the security services and Republican Guard, Hezbollah is more than a like-minded organization deserving of support. It is also a watchdog for the Islamic Republic’s perceived mission of protecting itself, and the wider region, from American domination. Hezbollah’s soft-spoken and charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has himself indicated that Iran sees his party, and especially its rocket arsenal, as a deterrent against possible Israeli or American aggression aimed, for instance, at disabling Iran’s nuclear program.
Hezbollah serves another Iranian goal, too. Its example of determined resistance to Israel and passionate support for the Palestinian cause rallies fellow Muslims to the notion of confrontation with, rather than accommodation of, the “forces of international arrogance.” This model defuses, to some extent, the growing tension between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, as exemplified by the turmoil in Iraq. In this way, it reinforces Iranian pretensions to wider Islamic leadership, to the detriment of “soft” rivals such as Saudi Arabia.
Yet just as plausibly, the fighting can be seen as having been simply another round in the far older struggle between Israelis and Arabs. It fits well into the mold. As long ago as the early 1950s, “fedayeen” groups (meaning those who sacrifice themselves), often representing nonstate actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood, launched pinprick raids on the nascent Jewish state, which responded with savage reprisals that typically targeted not fedayeen themselves but Arab civilians as well as …